I swear at first he looks like he doesn’t believe me, and I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t believe me either.

But something, I don’t know what, must change his mind because his expression softens. “Very well.”

I’m still so out of whack, I almost say whew out loud. Seriously, I feel like I literally just dodged a bullet.

Then he grabs my hand, the one that grabbed his wrist, and wraps his fingers around me. His grip isn’t harsh, but it might as well be given how much I loathe his touch. I have to stop myself from yanking my hand back as he pulls it up, close to his mouth.

At first, I’m afraid he’s going to maul me, or do something else awful, like bite my fingers off one by one.

But then his lips brush gently, slowly, almost tenderly, across my knuckles, and my skin wants to crawl right off my bones.

Eyes locking on mine, his grip suddenly tightens painfully around my hand as he keeps it poised close to his mouth.

I have to bite my lip to keep from crying out as he says, “If you feel it coming on again, zaika, you must let me know. Because nothing in this world, and I mean nothing, will stop me from protecting you and keeping you safe.”

Grip suddenly loosening, his head dips and his lips brush once more across my knuckles as if he’s trying to soothe the pain he created.

Then he looks up and flashes a smile so chilling my blood runs cold. “Even if I have to protect you from yourself.”

Alexei’s words sink into me with the pain, filling me with apprehension and dread.

What the hell is going on here? And what the hell does he mean by that? He’s sounding more and more like a possessive groom instead of a man who looks at me simply as an object or obligation.

Does he want this marriage for more than political reasons?

A knock on the door pulls Alexei’s attention away from me.

“Yes?” he calls out, a look of annoyance passing over his sharp features as he lowers my hand and keeps it trapped in his.

Every frantic beat of my heart seems to purge the lingering effects of his sedative out of my system. I’m almost completely sober now, and I don’t know what’s worse, being drugged against my will or having to face all this shit fully aware of what’s happening.

“It’s almost time, sir,” an unfamiliar Russian voice answers on the other side of the door. “The priest would like you to take your place now.”

“Ah, very good,” Alexei says, the corners of his lips pulling up as his attention returns to me.

His eyes gleam with smug pleasure, and I have the sudden, almost irresistible urge to yank my hand out of his grip. I want to yank it out and slap that smug look right off his pretty face.

But before I can, his grip tightens, and he uses my hand to pull me into him.

Breasts meet chest and hips meet hips.

I start to push away, unable to bear being so close to him, when his lips fall upon mine.

His kiss is cold, so damn cold.

I freeze in place, chilled to the bone.

I endure his touch, the sensation of his cold, dead lips moving over mine, and try my best not to throw up in my mouth.

Is this what I must endure for the rest of my life?

I don’t kiss him back. I don’t try to reciprocate in any way, but Alexei doesn’t seem to mind. He just takes and takes.

His mouth pulls and pulls.

The kiss stretches on and on, trapping me in my own personal hell.

When he finally breaks away, his hand comes up, cupping my cheek tenderly as he breathes hard.

“We’ll finish this after the ceremony,” he says ominously.

I rather light myself on fire.

Alexei stares at me for another moment as if he expects me to say something.

I just stare back at him, trying to come to terms with the dawning horror that my earlier suspicion was correct.

He wants me, and not only for the alliance.

3

Meghan

Alexei forces another kiss on me before leaving the room.

Once the lock clicks in place behind him, my hands go to the bodice of my dress, tugging and tearing in desperation to free myself from it. As if shedding it could change my fate or what I am.

Only the sound of the lock turning again stops me from trying to gnaw the damn thing off with my teeth.

I freeze in place as the door swings open, fearing it’s Alexei returning to torment me some more.

My father appears in the doorway, a grim shadow of the man I’ve known all my life. I swear, in the past two weeks, ever since he informed me of the arrangement, he’s aged twenty years.

I almost feel a pang of sympathy for him. Almost.

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